Aetherbound by E.K. Johnston

            The Harland was a transport ship, specializing in living cargo. Primarily, they took workers and supplies out to the mines and brought back raw ore for processing. The ship was old, too old for the engines to propel it quickly. A new vessel might make the same run in half a decade, while the Harland was set to spend eighteen years in space. But what the Harland lacked in speed, it made up for with size. The new ships were fast and small, and so they couldn’t carry the sheer bulk of materials and people that the outer reaches required. That was how the Harlands had made their name: each generation born into the cycle of travel with a captain to lead them and engineers to keep the power flowing. They never stayed still long enough to spend much currency, it was said, but they were worth a lot of it.

            Despite the size of the ship, Pendt spent most of her time in either her mother’s small suite, the mess, or the crèche. The medical bay was visited only in emergencies, and Pendt had rarely been ill in her few years. When she took messages below, she went only as far as the hard-seal door that prevented any of the paying passengers from gaining access to the ship. Conditions belowdecks could be very rough, especially as the years wore on and the food and water down there ran low. It wasn’t a very safe way to travel, and it was only moderately safer for the working crew, so the door was sealed against any and all incursions. The only exit they had below was to space, and the only news they ever heard was messages from the ship’s microphone. Pendt took the job seriously, mouthing the words written on the datapad she was given without really understanding them. The text was all times to destinations, perhaps meant as a morale boost and an indication that the bleakness would not last forever. When she spoke her words into the microphone, they were relayed or they were not. She had no way of knowing.

            In truth, she knew very little about the ship or their mission, save that both were vitally important, though to whom she had no idea. Much of the galaxy was beyond her, which was only fair given that no one ever told her anything worth knowing, except sometimes by accident. She knew that the bare minimum of supplies had been brought along, and must be carefully dealt with. There were opportunities for trade every few years when the Harland arrived at a mining colony, but preparation and rationing were of the utmost importance.

            “A generation ship is only as good as the next generation,” the captain would say, both as praise and condemnation. This was the only reason Pendt could see why her mother had six children to the captain’s four. Ten mouths to feed was a serious investment, and the captain expected them to pay off even if she was too busy to give birth herself.

            Today, as Lodia pulled her into the lift, Pendt felt fear for the first time in her life. Space was always fraught with some measure of uncertainty—either the void would get her or it wouldn’t—but it didn’t truly frighten her. And despite their best efforts, she was not afraid of her brothers or her cousins. But something about today was different, and on a spaceship, different was usually a bad thing. The lift moved in response to Lodia’s bio-code, not Pendt’s, which was much more restricted.

            Pendt looked up at her mother, a hundred questions on her tongue, but she saw that Lodia had fully become the officer as the lift began to climb. Harlands didn’t speak to officers unless they were spoken to. Instead, Pendt counted decks. They passed engineering, which Pendt had only seen in pictures. It covered several levels, both due to the size of the engines and the number of operations controlled there. Everything from air and water to light and the intercom was routed through the power sources there and tended to by Pendt’s oldest cousins and those born in Lodia’s generation who hadn’t reproduced.

            Above Engineering was the deck where the non-Family crew members lived. Pendt had only ever seen the ones who worked in the galley. Anyone wishing to move to a colony could book passage on a ship like the Harland or try to get hired. The crew had better quarters and rations than those who just handed over currency and tucked in to enjoy the ride. Those passengers were kept below: out of sight, out of mind. The crew didn’t necessarily know much about ships, so the jobs they did were the least desirable ones on board: cooking, cleaning, basic maintenance. The only exception was Dr. Morunt, a haggard-looking woman who had been added to the roster during a rare trip to Katla Station long before Pendt was born. Pendt never knew quite what to make of the doctor. She had a way of looking at her that made Pendt uncomfortable.